It seems today the MO is to stay woke or stay quiet—never a third option
There is no topic today more polarizing than politics. It holds true in the Philippines. It holds true in the United States. Third-world or first-world, political unrest is the common thread sewn through the fabric of a just society—as it unfortunately unravels.
For a subject so divisive, one would assume that it isn’t touched on often and remains taboo. The opposite actually is true. Politics today isn’t just on the nightly news or limited to election season. Politics is in the streets, on t-shirts, in TV show plotlines, on social media. It infiltrates the fashion industry, music, sports and Hollywood.
— Jerónimo Saldaña ? (@JeronimoSaldana) January 27, 2017
One side of the internet whines that not everything has to be politicized. The other, meanwhile, believes that it is essential, that now more than ever, politics is personal. Consider this: a single expression reflecting a person’s political stance is enough to provide insight into the kind of values he aligns himself with.
These political stances are telling. They have the power to reveal the (now-validated) bigots, misogynists, enablers of oppressors, the privileged and the politically tone-deaf that we never realized were around. And when the poster child for bigotry, misogyny and white supremacy takes the seat as president of one of the most powerful nations on earth, of course the ugly comes to the fore. And maybe politics has always been personal after all.
Fighting the good fight for social justice is now not only about taking a stand but using any and all possible avenues to show where you stand. The fight calls for it. Rap artists know a thing or two about that.
Music is the Answer. What is the Question?
It started with a lyric: “There’s not a man that can’t be thrown, not a horse that can’t be rode, a bull that can’t be stopped, there’s not a disco that I Coke La Rock can’t rock.” When DJ Kool Herc from the Bronx allowed his friend and MC Coke La Rock to spit bars over a hip-hop track, he had no idea it would spawn an entirely new genre of music.
It began with shout-outs to friends who attended block parties. These turned into poetry. Poetry turned into storytelling. Rap is a raw, unfiltered interpretation of societal pains, battles with racism, substance abuse, poverty and other pressing issues of the time. On the flipside, lighthearted rap exists to celebrate themes like family, motivation, victory, freedom and love.
Wu-Tang Clan told us: “I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side / Stayin’ alive was no jive / Had secondhands, Mom's bounced on old man / So then we moved to Shaolin land.” Nas gave us: “Everybody wants heaven but nobody wants dead / Everybody wants diamonds without the bloodshed.”
Lauryn Hill, Eminem, Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z and Ghostface Killah are just some of the other artists whose hard-hitting lyrics resonated with an audience. Like these artists, this audience ached for truth, a way to stick it to the man and yearned to hold those in power accountable.
In the collaborative track from 2015, “New God Flow.1,” Kanye spits: “Cars, money, girls and the clothes / Aww man, you sold your soul / Naw man, mad people was frontin’ / Aww man, made somethin’ from nothin’ / Picture workin’ so hard, and you can't cut through / That can mess up your whole life, like an uncle that touched you / What has the world come to? I'm from the 312 / Where cops don't come through and dreams don't come true” But what happens when this black kid from Atlanta rapping about the hustle and the struggle gets a taste of a better life, success, fame and power? What happens when he makes it big and is granted some sort of privilege because of it?
It becomes a matter of how you use your voice, your influence and your privilege.
Even ordinary citizens are taking it upon themselves to fill in the role of watchers of the watchmen. So what excuse do the privileged have? Shouldn’t those who have the power to effect real change among communities give a damn about them? Rap artists, having played this game for a long time, know to stand side by side with these ordinary citizens. To fight to keep those with power in check. To fight for equality. To remain vigilant about social issues.
Such is the case with Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” an eerie and powerful reminder about gun violence, racial discrimination, the deliberate use of distraction (social media) to keep people from addressing real world issues. “This Is America” is a proper wakeup call, an invitation to get woke.
The same happened with Kendrick Lamar when he released DAMN. in April 2017. Lamar made history when the album won the Pulitzer Prize one year later. It was lauded for being “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” This would be the first time a rap artist and a non-classical or jazz body of work won a Pulitzer and the first time the social issues faced by the African-American youth were brought to this kind of platform on the world stage.
Stay Woke or Stay Quiet?
Then, there’s Kanye West, the controversial performance artist who is just as polarizing a figure as politics is a topic. The rapper, as of late, has been making headlines again. This time, for his bold and unpredictable political statements.
Peers of West often claim that there is always a method to the madness with this man. They say this genius is ahead of his time. That’s why he’s easily misunderstood. For Kanye, all wants to do is promote free thinking, to ultimately free the world from the labels that enslave people, yet they gladly subscribe to and hide behind. For the rest of the world, Kanye is harming his own cause by favoring the aforementioned poster child for bigotry, misogyny and white supremacy.
Free thinking, much like free speech, does not mean being free from consequence. This is where West misses the mark. To make matters worse, he decided to open up a can of worms when he took to Twitter to show off his MAGA hat, openly expressing his support for Trump. Little did everyone else know that this was just the beginning.
The cringe-worthy part? Kanye actually makes valid points. But TMZ reporter Van Lathan, amid West’s tirade, jumps in to ensure the dialogue remains a two-way street: “What they don’t tell you is there are people dedicating their lives to working throughout the problems of black people. There are black people every day…boots on the ground…they are all over the place,” begins Lathan, driving home the point that privilege has awarded West with this new perspective. “They are working towards this. Like, every single day, people are trying to fix this problem. The narrative that black people don’t care about black lives until a white person takes them is false. That is not true. But the problem is: the people that are doing this work in communities every day, guys all over the place, they don’t get the type of reverence, they don’t get the type of shine, they don’t get the [spotlight] that other people do. Those people are the ones that need to be empowered.”
Lathan adds: “For me, for a lot of years, the dude that inspired me to be more than what I was in Baton Rouge? That was you. Ask everybody in this room: How many times we’ve had a Kanye West story and I’ve stood there, the only person to defend Kanye West because of what you meant to me. And then after that, you slap me in my fucking face by getting next to people who mean me harm? And don’t even care about being honest about the fact that he means me harm?!” This point sadly flies completely over the head of West, who appears to be set on ramming his way through to the finish line. The big picture matters more to him than the little pieces that create it.
Can Kanye West the woke rapper and Kanye West, man with shady political alliances, coexist? Moreover, is Kanye West truly out to try and change the world? Or is this just one massive publicity stunt for his new album coming out on June 1? Could it be that this is all part of his performance art? Either way, Van Lathan’s final reminder to West will always ring true: “You gotta to be responsible, brother; your voice is too big. You gotta be be responsible.”
Art Alexandra Lara